Paris, May 1816
Elijah would not stop fussing.
Serena and her new husband were arriving on today’s coach from Calais. The pair had already planned a grueling schedule of visits to tailor’s shops and hotels, and were trying out a different hotel every night of their stay, but first Elijah and René were bringing them home for dinner.
René tried to tactfully ignore it as his lover moved the cracked jug of dried flowers from one end of the mantel to the other, frowned at the charcoal stains in the boulangerie’s kitchen, scrubbed the counter, and prodded at his hair in the mirror.
Finally, putting together a basket of croissants for Serena—who was always cross and hungry after the least bit of travel—and watching Elijah rearrange the baguettes, frowning, René lost his patience.
“You’re hurting my mother’s feelings,” he said mildly. “I think they know we live in squalor. What is it?”
Elijah came and stood in front of him, tearing the end off a croissant and eating it mournfully. “Do I look happy to you?”
“What? Not at this moment, no.”
Elijah poked at a hole in his green coat, by now so worn he looked right at home in the quartier Saint-Germain. “I just…I’m so happy with you.” He met René’s eyes pleadingly. “So absurdly, deliriously happy, and I don’t want Solomon to have any excuse to…”
Ah. “To think you’ve made a very great sacrifice on the altar of your unnatural lusts,” René said flatly. He knew how their life would look to an English gentleman. He didn’t think it was so bad, himself.
Elijah didn’t deny it. Shoulders slumping, he picked at a scab on the inside of his wrist where he’d burned himself on the bake oven. “I’m sorry.”
“Who cares what your snobbish prude of a brother thinks?”
“I do, unfortunately. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to insult your mother. Our home is lovely.”
Our home. René couldn’t be angry. He leaned in and murmured in Elijah’s ear, “We will have to impart to you a glow before we go to meet the coach. Come upstairs.”
Elijah’s mouth curved hesitantly. “We’ll be late.”
“I’ll be swift.”
Serena looked hot, dusty, and ready to rip out a man’s heart when she emerged from the coach. After two days’ travel in her company, Elijah’s brother did not look much better.
She shoved half a croissant in her mouth before even bumping her shoulder against René’s and giving him a sideways Don’ t tell anyone I missed you glance.
Solomon was making short work of a croissant or two himself, arm slung around his brother’s shoulders.
A good spy was capable of dissembling. It was fortunate René was retired; he knew adoration was written helplessly across his face, because Elijah was glowing. To see his brother after a long absence, of course, but René liked to think he’d helped.
“You’ve gained weight,” Serena said abruptly to Elijah, scowling.
Everyone stared at her.
She looked the brothers up and down, and her forehead smoothed out. “Not as much as Solomon, though,” she decided.
René and Elijah exchanged mystified glances.
“I do…live in a bakery…?” Elijah tried.
“So you do.” Solomon smugly stole his third croissant.
Serena crossed her arms. “I have been feeding him. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.”
Solomon swallowed hastily, sighing. “Serena is afraid you won’t think she’s taking good care of me,” he told Elijah. “She made me go the barber and everything.” But he nudged Serena affectionately with his foot as he said it; she kicked him lightly in the ankle in return.
René burst out laughing. “Why is everyone I love mad in exactly the same way?”
Serena looked nonplussed, but she made the obvious joke anyway. “You must have predictable tastes.”
“I spent all morning fretting that you would think you were happier than we are,” Elijah explained grudgingly to his brother. “You aren’t, by the way.”
Solomon looked at René. “I have never felt closer to you than in this moment.”
Serena shifted restlessly, scattering flakes of croissant on the pavement as she sidled closer to René. “It wasn’t just Elijah whose opinion I minded,” she said quietly. “You always took care of me. I wanted you to see I’ve grown up, I suppose.” She shrugged. “It’s stupid.”
You could have flattened René with a feather. Serena, speaking candidly?
How much had changed? Tentatively, he put an arm around her waist. She hunched, but didn’t draw away. “He’s glowing with happiness, sirène,” he assured her.
It was a small amount a lie, but René was sure he would look less pale and tired when he hadn’t just traveled from Calais in an ill-sprung coach, and anyway that wasn’t the point.
“See, I told you.” Solomon tugged at the tassel on Serena’s pelisse cuff. Since when did Serena wear an orange pelisse with gold braid, anyway?
She beamed self-consciously at her husband and leaned into René’s side, and that was the point. René didn’t care about Solomon’s happiness one way or the other. He cared about Serena’s.
“Elijah looks very happy too,” she told René graciously, as if conceding an important competitive advantage.
René would take it. “Thank you.”
“They say love will do that to a man,” Elijah said daringly, blushing, and managed to hold René’s gaze for all of four seconds before turning back to his brother and changing the subject. René’s heart swelled like dough on a hot day.
“And you?” Serena asked him sotto voce. “I know he’s Solomon’s brother and I have no connections in Paris, but I’m sure I could find someone to break his kneecaps if I had to. Are you happy?”
René’s smile widened. “They say love will do that to a man.”